Army of Thieves Review: Army Of The Dead Heist Prequel Brings Style & Flair

Six years before the events of Army of the Dead, Ludwig Dieter was a different man. Although not entirely lacking in confidence, he lived a life of solitude and fully embraced his safe-cracking dreams in his head. Written by Army of the Dead screenwriter Shay Hatten, from a story he wrote with Zack Snyder, and directed by Matthias Schweighöfer, Army of Thieves shifts its tone and genre to fit the unconventional safe-cracker. Although many would be completely satisfied with not knowing the origins of the eccentric man from Snyder’s zombie action-thriller, it seems the Hollywood machine will never cease to turn out every possible spin-off, sequel, and prequel it can for any seemingly interesting supporting character. So, does Army of Thieves prove it deserves to exist? Yes, it’s pretty darn delightful. Army of Thieves is thrilling, endearing, and masterfully crafted, turning an already interesting supporting character into an exceptional lead.

Before he was known as Ludwig, Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert was a lonely German man living a monotonous life filled with uneventful days as a bank teller and building up his theoretical knowledge of safes. Most notably, his passion involves the mythical Hans Wagner safes and cracking all four Norse mythology-based masterpieces. In connection with Army of the Dead, Sebastian will eventually get to the fourth safe after cracking the first three. Army of Thieves is the story of how he did just that, and how these events led him to California where he would be offered the chance to crack the Götterdämmerung in the zombie-infested Las Vegas.

Related: Zack Snyder's Army of Thieves Posters Give Each Character a Heist Role

 

As is the case for many prequels, suspense and excitement is often dulled by the fact that viewers know the outcome of the protagonist’s journey. However, Hatten’s script and Schweighöfer’s directing take the less traveled road of deriving the film’s enjoyment from the journey, not the destination. Surprisingly, Sebastian's (a.k.a. Ludwig's) fate in Army of the Dead quickly fades into the deep recesses of one’s mind because Army of Thieves is a thoroughly enthralling adventure of one awkward nice guy finding new friends, maybe a lover, and pursuing his greatest passion: cracking safes. In fact, Hatten and Schweighöfer manage to drop in rather heavy reminders of what is to come for the beloved safecracker in rather subtle ways that don’t intrude on the film’s momentum. His fears and anxiety about the ongoing zombie outbreak feel natural to his character and the obvious fact that Götterdämmerung will be a mission he pursues on his own in the future doesn’t ever feel out of place. Granted, the satisfaction of a natural conclusion is marred by the reality that Sebastian and his new friends do not succeed in cracking all four safes. However, Schweighöfer’s lively approach to the story makes it all worth it.

The film’s best feature is Schweighöfer’s sense of comedic timing and extremely pleasing visual aesthetic. In comparison to its predecessor, Army of Thieves feels like an entirely new film, despite the borrowing of obnoxious title cards to display the character’s locations and introduce the characters themselves. However, even those things, and the short vignettes that condense the character’s respective backstories, are done so in a way that works due to Sebastian’s child-like wonder as he steps into the world of international thievery. Schweighöfer’s directing style is fully personalized to the character he plays so exquisitely. Sebastian is still as awkward as ever, but incredibly endearing. That kind and jolly nature that exudes from Sebastian permeate throughout the entire film, specifically in its aesthetic and pacing. While the film lacks any narrative suspense, what ultimately drives the film is the central leads — Sebastian and Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel).

 

Nathalie Emmanuel’s Gwendoline is effectively Catwoman, an international jewelry thief that has an impressive rap sheet that makes her the target of Interpol. However, Gwendoline lacks the cat-burglar gimmick and is decidedly nicer than Selina Kyle. The comparison is heightened since, at one point, Gwendoline and her crew are introduced with a plethora of tiny kittens at their hideout (it's pop culture synergy at work). Gwendoline is, for the most part, the co-lead. But as is the nature of prequels, her character development is decidedly short on substance as we know she is a non-factor later on in our protagonist’s future adventure. It's not dissimilar to Qi’ra from Star Wars’ Solo, who ultimately had no lasting impact on the universe. While Emmanuel's character is certainly the one who sets off the domino effect that leads Sebastian/Ludwig to Las Vegas, there is simply very little for Gwendoline to be anything other than a plot catalyst. And her team is an extension of that as well as the Interpol agents that chase her. They all feel so inconsequential, but not entirely unentertaining.

Although the film does suffer from a slightly long runtime, it is not that noticeable as Schweighöfer makes use of every frame. There is nothing that is ever uninteresting to see onscreen, the use of European locals is used to the fullest extent. The film is very stylish with the characters' outfits adequately representing who they are — from the generic Hollywood hero type in Brad Cage’s (Stuart Martin) appearance to the hot but cool-headed hacker in Korina (Ruby O. Fee), and the “I’m just here to drive cars very fast and eat a lot” getaway driver vibe in Rolph (Guz Khan) to Gwendoline’s sleek and sexy international thief get-up. Of course, the crème de la crème is the eccentric, yet oh-so-chic European fashion that Sebastian embraces, which is fully realized, each outfit perfectly tailored to the star/director of the film. While maintaining a crisp look, the film moves at a good pace, only ever slowing down to develop Sebastian’s character quirks and to ultimately bring a bit of style and excitement to the safe-cracking business. Just as Anya Taylor-Joy has been credited for bringing sexy back to chess, Schweighöfer definitely does his part to do the same for safecracking. (Apologies to Charlize Theron from The Italian Job, there is a new blonde safecracker in town.)

All in all, Army of Thieves is quite the triumph. It expertly subverts prequel expectations all while being a fun piece to a larger puzzle. If this film is any indication of the quality of work that will build up the Army of the Dead universe, then it is safe to say that we are about to get a really interesting franchise with each installment carrying its own unique characteristics. Army of Thieves will surely send many towards Schweighöfer’s filmography, several of which he directed himself. With Hollywood at his door now, there is no telling what this German star will cook up next.

Next: Why Army of Thieves Looks So Different To Army Of The Dead

Army of Thieves begins streaming on Netflix on October 29, 2021. The film is 127 minutes long and is unrated.



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